Early in the year, there are always teams with fast starts and outlier performances. Then as the sample sizes grow, teams settle into their positions in the standings and larger narratives develop in the media. There’s a lot of consternation around teams that are struggling more than they should be. There’s some fun columns about up-and-coming teams developing faster than expectations. Of course there’s always the early trade buzz starting up right around now.
However, there’s another annual type of article that talks about the good-to-great team that has jumped out in front of the rest of the league and is looking like a Finals favorite. You are starting to see those articles written about your beloved Boston Celtics. A few examples are below.
Those struggles ate at Joe Mazzulla all offseason. Revamping the offense was the main focus as he and the rest of the Celtics coaching staff prepared for this season — even before he was elevated to interim head coach when Ime Udoka was suspended for the season for violating team rules.
“The one thing we looked at was: What were the best clutch offensive teams running?” Mazzulla told ESPN. “We just tried to find the best clutch offenses and what they did and kind of studied that.”
And, as Mazzulla spoke to various coaches about different ways Boston could improve its offense, those discussions often revealed similar principles: more spacing, more ball movement and more off-ball screening action.
“We have a really smart team and experienced team and they know we had to reinvent ourselves,” Mazzulla said.
It is pretty clear that the Celtics have emphasized offense more this season. Sure, they claim to be a defense first team, and I hope they follow through on the recent improvements on defense, it is clear that they decided to “fix” the offense this year. Similar to last season when they installed a switch heavy defense and they became one of the best defenses right away (despite the win-loss record early in the year). This year they installed better habits and wrinkles into the offense and it has hit the ground running.
Offense was their greatest concern during the offseason. It’s what their coaches and players fixated on. How could they prevent the same Finals collapse (and near conference finals collapse) from happening again? With that problem apparently solved, it’s a good time to remember that they won’t be average on defense forever. A leap is brewing. One reason: Robert Williams III, a bouncy shot-blocking phenom whose return from knee surgery is imminent. He hasn’t played a second this season; that’s no minor absence. Last season, the Celtics allowed a suffocating 0.84 points per half-court play with him. This season, they’re 20th in half-court defense.
Just like an infomercial, there are strong “but wait, there’s MORE!” vibes with this team. Just wait till we get Robert back. While you can’t be higher in the standings than 1st, you can be a better basketball team. Remember this is a process over results team (that still wants the results at the end of the year).
The stats have become complete gibberish to me at this point. The gist is that we have the best team in all the land and they don’t show any signs of slowing down. What interests me more is how they are setting up to compete in the playoffs.
They’ve fixed the offensive issues that doomed them in the Finals. They have the personnel and experience to be a dominant defense. They are perfect for the modern game in that they win the math battle and they are flexible to adapt to any type of matchup. Sure there are teams that seem to be difficult matchups (Miami, Cleveland) and the road to the Finals will likely still need to go through Milwaukee. But this team is way ahead of the field at this point and it is a lot of fun to read (and write) about.